Your gaming group needs YOU (to GM)

A lot of gaming groups have just the one person who does the GMing. And it’s legendarily difficult to get GMs to run games at conventions, even though there’s no shortage of people who want to play. So why is it that some people are happy to play but don’t GM?

Part of the story is that there’s a mystique about GMing. People seem to think that there’s a special set of skills required, and natural talents that most people just don’t have. They think that they would screw it up if they did it, or at least embarrass themselves with a mediocre game. And let’s face it, a lot of roleplayers enjoy bitching about games they didn’t enjoy, even to the extent of hating on the GM who ran them. And the roleplaying community encourages the view that GMing is so, so hard. We write endlessly about GMing techniques you need to use, about the detailed game backgrounds we write and the zillions of complex plots and incredibly, vividly realised NPCs in our campaigns. It all looks terribly daunting from the outside.

But the reality is this: anybody can GM. Everyone had their first time GMing once, and yeah, it probably wasn’t that great. But with practice comes, if not perfection, certainly improvement. And it’s a similar set of skills that you need to GM as what you need to play – imagination, quick wits, the ability to juggle long lists of complex stats (ok, maybe I’m just thinking of playing Exalted with that last one).

And it’s not only first-time GMs who feel daunted by GMing, either. I still get pre-game nerves from time to time, or end up fretting over whether I’ve done enough prep the night before the game. I have bad games, too – everyone does.

So what’s my point? Well, my point is that GMing is like cooking. Not everyone is brilliant at it. It can be hard work. Occasionally you may burn the food and leave everyone feeling a little annoyed. But unless somebody cooks, there’s no meal. And it isn’t fair to assume that someone else will cook every time. If you’ve enjoyed someone’s GMing session after session but never tried it yourself, there really is no excuse not to try your hand at it, and, frankly, to pull your weight.

And if you’re one of those GMs who runs all the games in your group, ask yourself whether there is more you could do to encourage others to step up and give it a try. Fact is, some GMs hog the hot seat, always having a new game ready to replace the one they’re about to finish so that nobody else gets a try. After all, GMing is good fun. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gotten from it, and it has a certain status attached to it. Are you one of those GMs? Might you be discouraging others from trying it by bigging up how hard it is, so others will think more of you? Give this a try: next time your latest game is heading towards the finish line, why not say you’re thinking of taking a break for a few weeks, and does anyone else fancy running something? Maybe you could offer them help and advice if they haven’t tried before.

I’m not someone who thinks that GMing is more important than playing, but it’s definitely the case that GMs are harder to come by than players most of the time. So if you’re a GMing refusenik, consider giving it a try. And if you’re an experienced GM, think about what you can do to help bring more GMs into the fold.

Points of drama, part 2 – FATE

So, I felt the need to follow up my post on drama points after playing FATE last weekend. FATE is an open source rules system, so there’s a lot of variants out there. I haven’t read more then a couple and last weekend was my first go at playing, so take this as a comment on the particular version I was playing – Age of Arthur – rather than necessarily on FATE generally.

FATE is a fairly bog-standard skill-based system, albeit with the funky FUDGE dice to make it all feel a bit different. The bit of the system that I’d like to talk about here is the game’s use of fate points (I suspect that should be FATE points, but I’m damned if I can be bothered to press caps lock that many times). Each player has a pool of them, and the GM has a pool as well.

Fate points can be used to activate aspects, which are short phrases (or even single words) describing something about your character. Examples from our game were “boastful”, “thinks like a roman general”, “secretly prefers the company of pagans to other christians”. The important thing here is that they can be used in a positive way (to get a bonus on a skill roll) or a negative way (much like Leverage‘s distinctions). But in this case, a negative use of fate points means someone else compelling you to act in accordance with your aspect.

Here’s how it works. The GM can offer a player a fate point to act like their aspect says they should – so e.g. could force a boastful character to, uh, start boasting. If the player accepts, they get to keep the fate point. If they turn it down, that’s fine, but the GM gets the fate point instead. But in addition (and this is the important bit IMO) a player can offer another player a fate point from their pool in exactly the same way. In this case, turning it down just means the fate point stays with the player who was offering it.

The result of this is that players are encouraged to start spotting opportunities for other players’ characteristics to get them into interesting situations. And there’s an incentive for them to do so – there was a noticeable tendency in our game for people to try to funnel fate points to the person who needed them most for generating bonuses. It also means that the GM can encourage players to enter into situations that objectively look like a bad plan for their character, and reward them for doing so (which has the added bonus that it’s slightly easier for them to extract themselves from said situation).

It still felt like a slightly uncomfortable halfway house between completely sharing out GM responsibility a la (say) Fiasco, and centralised GM power in the more traditional mold. But the incentives meant that there was actually a good reason for players to use fate in a GM-like way, which could not easily be duplicated by any other means. Fate points didn’t feel counterintuitive or like a third wheel in this game; they fulfilled a definite niche. I begin to see the potential in mechanics like this.

Leverage: Points of drama

This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).

The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.

I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.

For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.

For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.

Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.

A deadly game

In my ponderings around combat systems, I have realised something that somehow escaped my notice previously. Virtually every combat system I know of is designed with just one thing in mind: implacable foes beating seven shades of hell out of each other with the intention of killing their opponent.

Most systems give some consideration to unarmed combat, and usually to grappling too. Knocking an opponent out is covered perhaps 50% of the time, and is often accomplished by simply beating the target character with your fists until they run out of hit points and collapse. These options are usually significantly harder to achieve than a kill, which creates an incentive to resort to lethal force.

Capturing an opponent is usually not considered at all (beyond the grappling system), nor is the possibility that an opponent will decide discretion is the better part of valour and try to surrender or run away. Systems often include a mechanism for a character to exit melee, but that isn’t quite the same thing – and again, it’s often much harder to escape combat than it is to carry on fighting. Surrender and flight are generally left to the GM to decide on, with no guidance given and no mechanic for helping to decide when an opponent might decide to flee. All this alongside systems which are often ludicrously detailed about wounds and death.

Why does all this matter? Well, the result of this bias towards lethality is that most fighting in roleplaying games is, well, lethal. Yet the most interesting stories we read, and many (not all) of the movies we watch involve trying to capture rather than kill the main villain, and a satisfying outcome often involves an antagonist being surrounded, pinned down by gunfire and forced to surrender, rather than taken down in a hail of bullets. This leaves open more possibilities, too: interrogation, escape, recurring villains (you can’t have a recurring villain if the villain is killed at the end of every story). I’ve lost count of the number of times that key clues have been lost in games I’ve run because the players shot the clue-bearer. Games have become so deadly that some of my GMs have been forced to resort to giving every villain a teleportation ring or similar so that they can live to fight another day!

I want to see more systems that include express consideration of, for example, how to handcuff the villain. That include mechanics for (or at least consideration of) morale, and grappling mechanics that don’t cause my brain to explode. I want games where killing is the last resort rather than the normal modus operandi.

Styles of Role-playing: expanding the model.

About a year ago I finally caught up with the Forge theory of role-playing and the Gamist, Simulationist and Narrativist styles of play. I spent a while attempting to categorise my own experience on this scale and felt I sat unhappily between Simulationist and Narrativist. I wanted enough internal consistency and simulation to create the suspension of disbelief I needed but I also wanted to drive the story my way and have my character’s own personal arc unfold. I said I sat “unhappily” though because I never felt that the 3 categories properly spoke to my own experience.

When I role-playing I do want an interesting story driven by me, the other players and the GM working together. But more than this I want to be emotionally touched by the experience of the story we create and during that creation I want to engage in interesting, stimulating and revealing conversations. I have written here about Conversationalism in role-playing games I run and the best sessions I have participated in have always been deep and meaningful, and changed the characters participating. Sometimes I role-playing just to enjoy inhabiting an interesting character and viewing the world through their eye. This style probably has more in common with Turku or Jeepform role-playing but I believe it is time to expand GNS to include Emotionalism and Conversationalism.

Therefore I propose two new classifications.

Emotionalism: your agenda when playing it to experience emotions thought the story and your character and facilitate other players experiencing emotions.

Conversationalism: your agenda when playing is to participate in and create an engaging conversation which deepens, expands or changes the relationship between the two characters involved.

Whilst Conversationalism has a passing similarity with Narrativism in that the course of the conversation will create a form of organic story, it is difference purely because the aim of Conversationalism is to enjoy the conversation not the creation of the story.

The pen is mightier than the sword

I hear a lot of people talking implicitly or explicitly about making their combat sequences like a really great movie. People are increasingly describing camera angles and SFX. But roleplaying is people talking to each other, using words. Which is, you know, more like a book than a movie.

So anyways, as I like to ponder how combat in games might be made cooler, I’m going to spend a little time looking at what’s cool about combat sequences in books. Starting with Joe Abercrombie, who for my money is one of the finest combat describers out there. Take a look at this little sequence from “Best Served Cold”:

“‘Fucking Talins,’ mouthed Shivers under his breath, the ashes of self-pity in his throat suddenly flaring up hot and bloody. It gnawed at him to come this low.Bastards had no use for his boots, just wanted to make themselves feel big. But it’d be a fool’s fight four against one, and with no weapon handy. A fool’s choice to get killed for some old leather, however cold it was.

He crouched down, muttering as he started to pull his boots off . Then his knee caught Red Nose right in his fruits and doubled him over with a breathy sigh. Surprised himself as much as he did them. Maybe going barefoot was more’n his pride would stretch to. He smashed Rat Face on the chin, grabbed him by the front of his coat and rammed him back into one of his mates, then sent them sprawling over together, yelping like cats in a rainstorm.

Shivers dodged the bald bastard’s stick as it came down and shrugged it off his shoulder. The man came stumbling past, off balance, mouth wide open. Shivers planted a punch right into the point of his hanging chin and snapped his head up, then hooked his legs away with one boot, sent him squawking onto his back and followed him down. Shivers’ fist crunched into his face – two, three, four times, and made a right mess of it, spattering blood up to the arm of Shivers’ dirty coat.”

There’s several things in here that are worth noticing. First, there’s absolutely no trading of blows. It’s all totally one-sided. Shivers is winning, so the action focuses on him kicking ass. A lot of games just don’t let that happen – even mooks get a roll to hit and the GM lamely describes them swinging and missing. The closest we get here is Shivers dodging the bald man.

Which brings me to the second point: it’s all from Shivers’ perspective. We hear how he sees the world and what he does. The bald man doesn’t swing his stick at him, Shivers dodges it.

The other thing I like about this sequence is the sheer visceral descriptiveness of it. Clearly there’s limited application of this for RPGs, because how much flowery language are you really going to use, but even so I could see applying a bit more brutal immediacy to my combat description.

Finally, and this is important, it’s really quick. The fight is all but over in one and a half paragraphs. Yet it doesn’t suffer for that, it feels like a real fight. Abercrombie does do longer fight sequences, but it’s striking how even really major fights can often be dealt with in a page or two. Yet many rpg systems grind out over many minutes if not hours.

I may look at some more authors at some point. Please feel free to drop a comment if you have an author you’d like to recommend for really awesome combat sequences.